I began to learn about the sex trade in Canada after I began working as the Executive Director of Indian Metis Christian Fellowship (IMCF) in Regina, Saskatchewan.
It was obvious to anyone who drove the streets of North Central Regina that the women and girls standing at street corners were at work. They were ‘street workers’ waiting for ‘johns’–the men who would pay them for sex. In the area around the ministry, the majority of street workers were Aboriginal females, from children to young adults to grandmothers.
In 1997, IMCF Community Program Coordinator William Davison and counselor Mark Smit learned about the John Schools that had been initiated in Edmonton, Alberta and Los Angeles, California. John Schools were one day workshops for people who had been charged with prostitution related offences. Due to the ministry’s mandate to serve the Aboriginal community and the high proportion of young Aboriginal women in the street sex trade it seemed opportune to explore the feasibility of developing an option for John Schools in Regina. The possibility of reducing the demand side of the street sex trade posed an alternative option to tacking this old problem.
Over several months, William Davison and Mark Smit initiated numerous discussions with representatives from the Regina Police Service, Saskatchewan Justice, community-based agencies, and families with members currently or formerly active in prostitution. Those discussions fostered many memos and notes of clarification and finally led to a John School pilot program. This program adopted many significant practices from the John Schools in Edmonton and Los Angeles. William, Mark, and I contributed to the unique characteristics of the Saskatchewan John School model. William’s life experience as an Aboriginal child of prostitution and survival of childhood trauma contributed to the model’s street smart toughness and Aboriginal orientation. As the trained counsellor in the mix, Mark brought the latest in knowledge about sexual addictions and relevant counselling approaches. My contributions were the wordsmithing of applications, registration and reporting forms, and an adult educator’s preference for a smaller group size.
In 1998, the ministry was awarded status as a provincially endorsed agency for ‘alternative community justice initiatives.’ During the following decade, more than 500 men participated in the John Schools offered by the ministry in Regina. Each participant became eligible to apply following their arrest by the Regina Police Service for a prostitution-related offence. The alternative to the John School was a court appearance, possible conviction, possible record, and the certain cost of associated legal fees and fines. Application to the John School and subsequent enrollment required the payment of provincially established fees to the ministry. The recidivism (repeat offence) rate for participants in the John School designed and delivered by IMCF staff has been less than 3%. The effectiveness of the ministry’s John School model led to a contract with the provincial government to help other Saskatoon community agencies to deliver a similar program. Since 2002 the Salvation Army in Saskatoon has delivered 68 John Schools to more than 600 people while utilizing human and other resources from the IMCF model.
So what did I learn about prostitution in Canada?
I learned that prostitution is legal in Canada. The John School applicants in Saskatchewan are charged under the Highway Traffic Act! (If the December 2013 Supreme Court of Canada decision stands, this option may not be available anywhere in the country.)
I learned that the legal status of prostitution helps to perpetuate the myth that prostitution harms no one.
I learned that pimps and their lawyers benefit from the legal status of prostitution.
I learned that Johns are young and old, rich and poor, ‘red and yellow, black and white’, and from all occupations –from police to professors and plumbers and preachers.
I learned that in their childhood or early adolescence many Johns had been the subjects of sexual activities initiated by older family members or trusted family friends.
I learned that before attending John School, men would insist that the ‘girls’ offered their services voluntarily; it was the ‘job’ they chose to do.
I learned that the stories of survivors and family members of prostitutes moved many John School participants to tears of confession and remorse.
I learned that pimps are masters of manipulation and avoidance. Through a toxic mix of violence, professions of love, and the power of addictions they are able to force girls to sell themselves to strangers day after day.
I learned that prostitutes carry weapons to defend themselves from violent customers.
"I learned that the realities of prostitution were much different from the myth of the high priced call-girl. (That skepticism was confirmed by former call-girl Natalie McLennan’s revelation in her review of the book ‘The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It’. She wrote, “Johns never look in the girls' eyes, and the sparkle disappears from a child prostitute's eyes. I never opened my eyes when I was with a client. And I kept them closed until now.” Globe & Mail, Saturday, 20 June 2009)
I learned that street workers acquire many STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) and that some STDs are forever…
I learned that most people are woefully ignorant of the risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
I learned that many Johns catch Sexually Transmitted Diseases from prostitutes and pass those diseases on to their own family members.
I learned that some pimps and some Johns would use violence to force prostitutes not to use condoms.
I learned that child hood sexual trauma causes the brains of adult survivors to release ‘feel good’ signals when they are in at risk situations. (“Young girls who have a history of abuse show hormonal responses to stress that contradict normal reactions and may lay the groundwork for dysfunctional relationships later in life, new research shows.” From ‘Abuse in Girls Linked to Abnormal Stress Response’, Nancy A. Melville, Jul 29, 2013)
I learned that children can experience sexual trauma from members of their family or their church communities.
I learned that children who experienced child hood sexual trauma are more vulnerable to the predatory and false promises of pimps.
I have never met a street worker who has not experienced sexual abuse in his/her childhood.
I learned that prostitutes are female and male.
I learned that a researcher at the University of Calgary had documented that many desperate male teenage runaways sell themselves into prostitution soon after running away from home. (Under the Radar: The Sexual Exploitation of Young Men, Dr. Sue McIntyre, 2005)
I learned that for many leaving the world of prostitution is like quitting an addiction. Some only leave through the death blows of their pimps or johns or they wither away from a streetwork- acquired disease.
I learned that prostitution is not a profession—it is simply the world’s oldest method of exploiting vulnerable and traumatized youth.
I learned to hope for Canada’s adoption of the Nordic Model so that the purchase of sexual services will be illegal in Canada.
I learned that I need the help of Canadians across Canada to speak out and demand that Parliament adopt the Nordic model.
Will you help?
(Editor's note: The Supreme Court struck down Canada's prostitution laws last year and the federal government has been hearing from citizens about how the new laws should look. Though the formal consultation time has come to an end, it is still worth contacting your Member of Parliament to make your voice heard on this topic.)
[Image: Flickr user Tim Ricchuiti]